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Change Coming For Charlotte Taxis

Make-shift lounge cab drivers use at Charlotte's airport. align=left

An effort to overhaul the taxi system at Charlotte-Douglas Airport has already led to two lawsuits and hours of heated debate at city hall. For a Charlotte taxi driver, the plumb job is at the airport. The passengers are plentiful and usually polite. The average fare is $25 for a quick trip to Uptown. Drivers have a lounge to relax in while they wait their turn to pull up to the terminal. Compare that to the hectic life of street drivers who must battle traffic as they cruise for fares, and it's no wonder the 144 drivers lucky enough to get an airport permit hang onto it as long as they can. "Fifteen years." "Nineteen years." "Eleven years." Taxi drivers rattle off the length of time they've been serving the Charlotte airport. They crowd around my microphone in the airport taxi parking lot, eager to unload their frustration. Charlotte Airport director Jerry Orr plans to restrict the number of cab companies with airport permits from the current twelve down to just three. That means at least 100 of the current airport drivers could lose their permits - and possibly their livelihood. "The reason that Jerry Orr wants to reduce the number of taxi cabs here is - his main reason - is we are not making money," says Prestige Cab airport driver Solomon Bekele. "Yes we are making money! Somebody else is taking it away!" "If two elephants fight, who gets hurt? The grass!" says Abdi Mohamud, an airport driver for Diamond Cab. "We are the grass that gets hurt!" Airport officials hope that with fewer cab companies working the airport, they'll be able to better police the quality of taxi service. In mid-June, the City Council is scheduled to approve exclusive airport contracts with three cab companies that promise to operate newer cars with cutting-edge technology. Diamond Cab is not on the list, even though owner Nazakat Khan says he's served the airport for 18 years. "If I lose my airport I'm going shut down my business," says Khan. "My major income is from (the) airport." Here's why the airport matters so much to Khan: Taxi drivers keep 100 percent of their fares, but they pay a weekly franchise fee to their cab company for the privilege of driving under the company brand and using one of the company's few airport permits. Those fees range from $150 to $550 a week. Drivers feel captive because city law requires them to affiliate with a cab company. "They're sitting home and making money and I'm wondering why is that?" says Prestige Cab driver Harpreet Gill. He estimates he's paid nearly $60,000 in franchise fees over the past seven years. "I could have paid off my house - my mortgage!" Gill - like most airport drivers - owns his vehicle. He pays for insurance, maintenance and gas. Prestige Cab provides a meter and a radio for taking calls from the dispatcher. But Gill rarely turns either of those on because nearly all of his time is spent picking up passengers at baggage claim, driving them Uptown and heading right back to the airport to get the next person in line. Cab companies are unnecessary middle men, say the airport drivers. But Crown Cab vice president Mayur Khandelwal says the arrangement gives passengers - and the city - confidence drivers are being supervised and held accountable. "(They) can have a certain level of confidence that if anything goes wrong in their ride - even if they just flagged the driver down - they know there's a company behind that that has been around and is gonna stand by their experience," says Khandelwal. Crown Cab happens to be one of the lucky three companies chosen by the airport for a taxi contract, along with Yellow Cab and City Cab. Another company called King/Royal Cab was selected, but then disqualified because its owners are convicted felons. They're now suing to stop the airport contract process. A few airport drivers are suing, too. They say dozens of them will have to go back on the street, where more than 400 other taxis cruise for fares. Competition is stiff and cab drivers complain that most hotel business goes to limo companies with exclusive contracts. City attorney Mujeeb Shah-Khan says there's little common ground among the players. "None of them agreed on particular areas that we should all look at," says Shah-Khan of the process currently underway to revise the city's Passenger Vehicle for Hire ordinance. In addition to the airport contracts, the city council is also making some tweaks to the ordinance. Taxis and limos will have to be newer - a minimum of six years, rather than ten. They'll have to be equipped with back seat credit card machines. The cost of these changes will fall squarely on the shoulders of the drivers, for the most part. They say they're already being squeezed by their company owners. City Attorney Shah-Khan says that may be true, but the rules aren't meant to make life easier for cab drivers or their companies. "It's about protecting the public - not just our citizens but those that visit Charlotte as well," says Shah-Khan. Protecting the public, yes, but also making a good first impression. In Charlotte, that usually starts with a ride in a cab.